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BC Plan for Post-Secondary Accreditation Reform Falls Flat

Critics say government's framework for better quality control misses the academic boat.

Katie Hyslop 1 Aug

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Robert Clift, head of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. says government's one-size-fits-all approach won't work.

British Columbia has a vast post-secondary landscape that includes more than 400 institutions, from public universities and colleges to private trades and language schools, serving half a million students.

The system established to ensure each school provides a good quality education is almost as broad.

Government post-secondary accreditation is dealt with through a mishmash of different legislation, policy and rules, with four different accreditation bodies responsible for different kinds of schools.

Government, administrators, students, and educators alike agree bureaucracy and vague inconsistent rules bog down the current system. Plus the government's plan to increase the number of international students by 30 per cent, and the federal government's new student visa requirements requiring attendance at government-approved institutions means optional language school accreditation is no longer in B.C.'s best interest. (Accreditation for private language schools that don't offer additional career training in B.C., like most other provinces, is optional. Because it's a costly and time-consuming process, few bother going through it.)

The Ministry of Advanced Education has put the wheels in motion to create a new quality assurance framework for accreditations, starting with a discussion paper in 2011, and stakeholder consultations in 2012 and 2013. They released a Green Paper last March, outlining a proposed one accreditation body system that would cover all post-secondary institutions, including private language.

The response so far? Stakeholders fear the one-size-fits-all approach won't work for a set of institutions so widely diverse.

'Byzantine, unwieldy'

"They're trying to do something that encompasses everything from UBC down to 'Joe's Hairdressing School,'" said Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia (CUFA-BC). "Yeah, we're all post-secondary, and there certainly are (accreditation) principles that one can rely on, but the detail of the system cannot be universally applied.

"The fundamental problem in all of this is the government is trying to create a general mechanism for academic quality assurance to fit everybody.

Putting all post-secondary accreditation responsibilities under one body will likely save tax payers money. But Jeremy Sabell, president of the B.C. Career Colleges Association (BCCCA), says what they save in money could cost post-secondary institutions in time spent pushing their applications through a "byzantine, unwieldy entity created that is unable to do what it's intended to do in a timely fashion."

He is also concerned about whose best practices the new Quality Assurance Framework will be adopting.

"Is this going to take on more of a public institution's way of doing things, which is somewhat different than our own?" he asked.

Sabell says under the current system, private institutes are held to a double standard. He cites the case of Student Aid B.C. de-designating private schools if overall student attendance at the school drops below 80 per cent, meaning their students could not get loans. But public institutions aren't required to even track student attendance.

Most private schools are smaller than public institutions, too, making the annual assessment process and five-year review currently required for accreditation more time consuming for smaller colleges than larger schools. With the new Quality Assurance Framework set to be unveiled by this fall, Sabell worries smaller schools will be scrambling to fill out the necessary paper work before the federal government's student visa changes take place in January 2014.

The Green Paper repeatedly references ensuring institutions provide students with appropriate job skills, and the process was part of the BC Jobs Plan announced in September 2011.

Sabell notes while many private institutions in the BCCCA share this goal, public institutions do not.

"If I was in public education, that sort of talk might scare the bejeesus out of me," said Sabell.

"Public education has never been about specifically aligning the education to the needs of employers. It's been about creating well-rounded individuals who can think objectively or possibly creatively, etc. It's not been about employment outcomes."

That's the point the Canadian Federation of Students' (CFS) B.C. branch has been trying to emphasize since this process began in 2011.

"We put it out there to the government...(to) recognize that while in trades training it might be quite heavily focused on employment outcomes, that education and teaching and research at institutions across the province don't necessarily transfer... into employment," said Zachary Crispin, the B.C. representative on the CFS national executive.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Crispin says the province needs artists and intellectuals as much as it needs welders and engineers, but their success and contribution to the province isn't as easy to measure as jobs numbers.

"Post-secondary institutions recognize this, and they're structured in a way that allow them to develop their own measure of what's good and what's not, and that's worked for many years," he said.

Problem is with private schools: Clift

Clift shares Crispin and Sabell's concerns about a private solution to public post-secondary accreditation. Especially since he says B.C.'s biggest accreditation issue is with private post-secondary institutions themselves.

"Our advice (to government) is focus on where your challenges are, and that's with the private institutions. Quit trying to create a new bureaucracy to deal with the publics when you know there isn't any fundamental problem with the publics," he said.

"Sure, no public institution is perfect. But this quality control mechanism really isn't going to deal with where the adjustments need to be made in public institutions."

Clift says part of the problem is the ministry's use of the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) as a basis for the proposed accrediting body. Developed by Carnegie Melon University, the CMM was originally intended for the school's Software Engineering Institute. While Clift says there's nothing wrong with the model, it isn't appropriate for accrediting academic programs.

"The principles are there, but it really doesn't get at the way academic quality is really assessed and how academic programs are created," he told The Tyee.

Saying he's been involved with finding appropriate accreditation models for B.C. since 1995 -- the current model was devised under the Liberals in 2002/03 -- he says it should be clear to government that they don't understand enough about how public post-secondary institutions operate to properly accredit them.

"The way governments have been approaching quality assurance for the post-secondary institutions is it keeps coming from this perspective that there's something wrong and government's going to fix it, as opposed to 'look at what we do right,'" he said.

He says any government issues with public post-secondary institutions should be dealt with outside of an accreditation process.

"Because inevitably, government never really gets it, and it's not because anyone's doing a bad job in government, it's just the nature of government. Their concerns are different than the concerns of the institutions and how we deliver a (good) quality education."

The VQA of post-secondary institutions

Clift says the ministry has indicated to CUFA-BC that the new Quality Assurance Framework, initially set to be unveiled this fall, will likely be put on hold in light of criticisms over the Green Paper.

The Tyee contacted the Ministry of Advanced Education for an interview, but was told the minister was not available and the deputy minister responsible for the Quality Assurance Framework was on vacation. In an email response, however, the ministry indicated it is looking at extending its deadline.

"During the Phase 3 consultations, some stakeholders expressed concern about the timeline for implementation of the proposed framework so the ministry is continuing to work with stakeholders across the public and private post-secondary system," wrote a ministry spokesperson.

Clift hopes the ministry will consider public post-secondary's ability to review its own programs by setting up a body similar to the B.C.'s wine quality assurance body, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).

"VQA works because the people who produce the wine, they're the ones that decide the quality, they're the ones that can do the guidelines, they're the ones that do assessment, they're the ones that benefit from having it. So they're completely invested in that, and because it's their industry completely invested in that, it works really well," he said.

Clift likens government's responsibility for public institution quality to that of a health region's responsibility that restaurants are safe to eat in, not to ensure the food tastes good.

If governments really want to ensure education quality improves, Crispin says they should return funding cut from post-secondary education.

"A lot of the issues that we see on campus come from a lack of funding," he told The Tyee. And quality assurance "doesn't really help if there's issues in a program where quality is being reduced because funding's not there, or programs are being cut so it's more difficult to develop more varied or dynamic graduates.

"You're not going to fix that by having an immense amount of program reviews. You're going to fix that by putting that money back into the institutions."

While Sabell would like to see more clarity in the final framework as to what best practices will be adopted, whatever the final process is, that government provide the necessary resources to implement the new rules and policies. But he commends government for their efforts to remain transparent throughout the process.

"The fact that I've attended no fewer than four meetings at which the Ministry of Advanced Ed was present, should indicate that they're very involved and engaged with the stakeholders, and not just private post-secondary. They're doing the same thing with language schools, with public post-secondary institutions, as well," he said.

The ministry says response to the Green Paper hasn't been all bad news, and whatever the outcome, students should feel confident in the education they receive.

"In their discussions on the green paper with stakeholders, ministry staff heard positive feedback as well as comments and suggestions for refining the proposed quality assurance model," read the statement.

"Under this framework students can be confident that no matter which post-secondary institution they attend, the education promised will be the education delivered."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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